Members of Congress: Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896)

Lyman Trumbull could be a difficult man to like. Ward Hill Lamon wrote how Mr. Lincoln signed the Thirteenth Amendment in the spirit of the moment - even though his signature was unnecessary. "Subsequently, however, the Senate, at the instance of Senator Lyman Trumbull, who as a gifted hair-splitter, adopted a resolution that such approval by the President was unnecessary to give effect to the action of Congress...."1

Trumbull wasn't a great orator but he was a careful attorney and such details concerned him. He had been an early opponent of slavery who fought in the Illinois courts to secure its abolition in the states. He and Mr. Lincoln had not always been on the same side - in court on politics. When he faced off against Mr. Lincoln in the Illinois Supreme Court in the 1840s, he lost the three cases in which he appeared as opposing counsel. In 1848, Trumbull was appointed to the State Supreme Court by Governor Augustus C. French - for a three-year term joining Samuel H. Treat and John Dean Caton. Never wealthy, Trumbull dabbled in business - with real estate and railroad partnerships. He ran repeatedly and unsuccessfully for Congress and had been was considered as a Democratic candidate for governor in 1850.

He broke with the state's Democratic leader, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, over Douglas's sponsorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Five anti-Nebraska Democrats in the State Legislature held the balance of power in the election to name a Senator to the seat held by Democrat James Shields. They all refused to vote for Mr. Lincoln, guaranteeing that he could not be elected. After Trumbull won election to the Senate over Mr. Lincoln in 1855, Mr. Lincoln wrote a friend:
"It is not true, as might appear by the first ballot, that Trumbull had only five friends who preferred him to me. I know the business of all the men tolerably well, and my opinion is, that if the 51 who elected him, were compelled to a naked expression of preference between him and me, he would be at the outside, have 16 and I would have the remainder. And this again would depend substantially upon the fact that his 16 came from the old democratic ranks & the remainder from the whigs. Such as preferred him, yet voted for me on the first ballottings and so the idea that a minority among friends, ought not to stand out against a majority. Lest you might receive a different impression, I wish to say I hold Judge Parks in very high estimation; believing him to be neither to be neither knave or fool, but decidedly the reverse of both. Now, as I have called names so freely, you will of course consider this confidential."2

Illinois Judge Samuel Parks recalled "Mr. Lincoln was very much disappointed, for I think that at that it was the height of his ambition to get into the U.S. Senate." Parks said: "He told me several times afterwards that the election of Trumbull was the best thing that could have happened."3 Although Mr. Lincoln was probably right in retrospect, it was hard to convince his old Whig friends that there was a silver lining in the defeat and they remained bitter even as Mr. Lincoln worked to put together a Republican Party that was a coalition of diverse interests. When Mr. Lincoln couldn't honor a request for an 1857 campaign appearance in Minnesota, he wrote: "I have learned that our Republican Senator, Judge Trumbull, will be with you. You will find him a true and an able man.4

Trumbull operated in his own self interest and joined the team supporting Mr. Lincoln's Senate ambitions in 1858. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote that "there was a strong feeling that Lincoln deserved support because of his 'sacrifice' which had assured Trumbull's election in 1855. Trumbull himself cordially acknowledged the debt, and it was mentioned frequently in party newspapers and correspondence."5 William Herndon went East to shore up Republican support. "I Washington I saw and dined with Trumbull, who went over the situation with me. Trumbull had written to Lincoln shortly before that he thought it 'useless to speculate upon the further course of Douglas or the effect it is to have in Illinois or other States. He himself does not know where is going to where he will come out. At my interview with Trumbull, however, he directed me to assure Mr. Lincoln that Douglas did not mean to join the Republican party, however treat the breach between himself and the administration might be. 'We Republicans here,' he said exultingly in another letter to Lincoln, 'are in good spirits, and are standing back to let the fight go on between Douglas and his former associates. Lincoln will lose nothing by this if he can keep the attention of our Illinois people from being diverted from the great and vital question of the day to the minor and temporary issues which are now being discussed."6

Trumbull biographer Ralph J. Roske noted: "Lincoln found himself overshadowed in the press by the Trumbull-Douglas feud over the Little Giant's complicity in the framing of the Toombs bill. Lincoln foresaw this development, and it was partly the reason for his challenging Douglas to debate." But even that strategy did not solve the problem "Trumbull and his accusations against Douglas constantly were mentioned in the debates by the Little Giant, although Lincoln would have preferred to ignore Lyman's campaign role. So, despite Lincoln's desire to focus on his own views, he was compelled to defend Trumbull."7

Roske noted: "Trumbull's herculean effort was not an unselfish gesture, because if Lincoln were not elected senator in 1858, there were many Republicans who would favor him rather than Trumbull as the Republican senatorial nominee in 1860. And Trumbull's speeches were invariably only anti-Douglass, and ungenerously, little pro-Lincoln. Trumbull's course in 1858 was indicative of his attitude toward Lincoln, a condescending one, since he had defeated Lincoln in 1855 and possessed, at least until the campaign of 1858, a larger national reputation."8

Mr. Lincoln strongly supported Trumbull's reelection in 1860. In February 1859, he wrote Trumbull: "Yours of the 29th. is received. The article mentioned by you, prepared for the Chicago Journal, I have not seen; nor do I wish to see it, though I heard of it a month, or more, ago. Any effort to put enmity between you and me, is as idle as the wind. I do not for a moment doubt that you, Judd, Cook, Palmer, and the republicans generally, coming from the old democratic ranks were as sincerely anxious for my success in the late contest as I myself, and the old whig republicans were. And I beg to assure you, beyond all possible cavil, that you can scarcely be more anxious to be sustained two years hence than I am that you shall be so sustained. I can not conceive it possible for me to be a rival of yours, or to take sides against you in favor of any rival. Nor do I think there is much danger of the old democratic and whig elements of our party breaking into opposing factions. They certainly shall not, if I can prevent it."9

"I do not understand Trumbull and myself to be rivals. You know I am pledged to not enter a struggle with him for the seat in the Senate now occupied by him. " Mr. Lincoln wrote Republican State Chairman Norman B. Judd on December 9, 185910 "To lose Trumbull's re-election next winter would be a great disaster," Mr. Lincoln wrote William Fithian on August 15, 1860.11 But Trumbull was not a product of the political-legal fraternity in the Eighth Circuit that was the core of Mr. Lincoln's support and it was natural that he saw his own political prospects as superior to Mr. Lincoln's.

"During 1859 and 1860, there was talk in various southerly counties about placing him on the nation ticket. Trumbull apparently did not encourage the movement, and it eventually subsided. At the same time, he remained aloof from the Lincoln boom, while offering o open resistance to it," wrote Don E. Fehrenbacher. "Opposed to Seward, he favored John McLean, the seventy-five-year-old Supreme Court Justice who had given Fremont his only competition for the presidential nomination in 1856. Any explanation of Lincoln's success in obtaining a firm endorsement at the Decatur convention is incomplete without some consideration of Trumbull's failure to either challenge or support him."12

Again, according to Fehrenbacher, Trumbull operated in his self interest. He wrote that "an open struggle with Lincoln over the presidency would no doubt divide the party in Illinois and jeopardize the Senator's chances of reelection. Wisely, he chose to settle for the bird in hand."13

Mr. Lincoln engaged in a delicate job of courting Trumbull's friendship. In December 1859, Mr. Lincoln wrote Trumbull to compliment him on a speech he had given in Congress, adding to give some political assistance in its distribution: "I was in the inside of the Post-Office last evening when a mail came bringing a considerable number of your documents; and the Post-Master said to me 'These will be put in the boxes, and half will never be called for. If Trumbull would send them to me I would distribute a hundred to where he will get ten distributed this way.' I said, shall I write this to Trumbull. He replied 'If you choose you may.' I believe he was sincere; but you will judge of that for yourself.."14

Orlando Ficklin, a long-time friend and legal associate of Mr. Lincoln, was the Democratic candidate for the Senate against Trumbull in 1860. He challenged Trumbull to a series of Lincoln-Douglas style debates. Ficklin had served in the Legislature as a Whig and for eight years in Congress as a Democrat. Trumbull's brother-in-law William Jayne ran for the Senate in Sangamon County and his victory helped secure the State Senate for the Republicans. In truth, Trumbull needed Mr. Lincoln in this election and Mr. Lincoln needed Trumbull.

But Trumbull was reluctant to appear too dependent. "Just before the Senate's adjournment [in 1860], the Buchanan newspaper, the Washington Constitution, growled that Trumbull was the 'representative of the Republican candidate for the Presidency....' Trumbull replied on the Senate floor, saying, 'I am no more his representative than is any other Senator...who agrees to the principles of the Republican party," according Trumbull's biographer, Ralph J. Roske. "Trumbull's disclaimer that he was not Lincoln's personal spokesman was more true than he wished it to be. His letters to Lincoln after the latter's nomination teemed with advice about what course of action to take. Lincoln, in his letters, handled Trumbull cleverly, reassuring him in general terms, but taking him only moderately into his confidence."15

Their interdependence did not end with the election. Senator Trumbull's concerns about possible patronage commitments was reflected in a letter he sent Mr. Lincoln after the Republican National Convention. Mr. Lincoln responded on June 5. "Remember that Peter denied his Lord with an oath, after most solemnly protesting that he never would, I will not swear I will make no committals; but I do think I will not."16 Once elected, Mr. Lincoln tried to keep Trumbull appraised of his deliberations. The President-elect not only need to put together a cabinet; he needed to keep together his Republican base in Illinois. The truth was that Mr. Lincoln was closer to Trumbull's ally, Norman B. Judd, than he was to Trumbull himself. Trumbull wrote Mr. Lincoln at the end of December one of many letters they exchanged between the election and the inauguration: "In making up your cabinet I trust you will not overlook Mr. Judd, in whom I personally feel more interest than in any other person named - Beside I think he is just such a man as would be most useful to you -"17 In early January, Mr. Lincoln wrote Trumbull:
Yours of the 3rd is just received. The democrats of our H.R. refused to make a quorum today, trying, as I understand, to prevent your re-election. I trust that before this reaches you, the telegraph will have informed you that they have failed, and you have triumphed.
Gen. C. has not been offered the Treasury, and I think, will not be. It seems to me not only highly proper, but a necessity, that Gov. Chase shall take that place. His ability, firmness, and purity of character, produce the propriety; and that he alone can reconcile Mr. Bryant, and his class, to the appointment of Gov. S to the State Department produces the necessity. But then comes the danger that the protectionists of Pennsylvania will be dissatisfied; and, to clear this difficulty, Gen. C. must be brought to co-operate. He would readily do this for the War Department. But then comes the fierce opposition to his having any Department, threatening even to send charges into the Senate to procure his rejection by that body. Now, what I would most like, and what I think he should prefer too, under the circumstances, would be to retain his place in the Senate; and if that place has been promised to another, let that other take a respectable, and reasonably lucrative place aborad. Also let Gen. C's friends be, with entire fairness, cared for in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
I may mention before closing that besides the very fierce opposition to Gen. C. he is more amply recommended for a place in the cabinet, than any other man.
I have a great notion to post Judd fully in this matter, and get him to visit Washington, and in his quiet way, try to adjust it satisfactorily.18

During early 1861, a coolness developed between Senator Trumbull and President Lincoln, which Trumbull felt keenly in the allocation of patronage. According to biographer Ralph J. Roske, "Trumbull felt the pressure to 'take care' of his friends, and each unsuccessful aspirant blamed Trumbull personally, even when the senator had done his best to obtain a place for him."19 In truth, the Senator had not done badly - particularly for his own family. President Lincoln appointed Trumbull's brother-in-law as Governor of Dakota and brother Benjamin M. Trumbull to Omaha land office. Combined with some appointments from Mary Todd Lincoln's family, President Lincoln grew concerned that Illinois critics might think that all patronage was going to the Trumbull and Lincoln families.

Trumbull was never one of Mr. Lincoln's fervent supporters or admirers. He wrote of Lincoln: "He's a trimmer, and such a trimmer as the world has ever seen. ...He is secretive, communicates no more of his own thoughts and purposes than he think will serve the ends he has in view; he has the faculty of gain the confidence of others by apparently giving them his own, and in that way attaches to himself many friends; he is one of the shrewdest men I have ever known; he is by no means the unsophisticated, artless man that many take him to be."20 Trumbull biographer Mark M. Krug argued: "Trumbull, alone with most of his contemporaries, did not really understand Lincoln. The fact that he had known his compatriot intimately for many years, as a circuit riding lawyer, legislator, and aspiring politician, did not give him an insight into Lincoln's potential greatness. On the contrary, it made him believe that Lincoln was ambitious but indecisive, a compromiser who could be swayed by knowledgeable advisors of the type of William Seward."21

Their personality differences may have contributed to their political differences. Trumbull was more reserved and more family-oriented that Mr. Lincoln. "Unlike Abraham Lincoln," wrote Trumbull biographer Roske, "he never relished the rough masculine company of the judicial circuit. Trumbull was no yarnspinner, and the evenings around the pot-bellied stoves in taverns seemed dull. The missed his comfortable home and garden."22

The arrival of Orville H. Browning in Washington in July 1861 as the successor to Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had died in early June, probably did not help the Lincoln-Trumbull relationship. The Lincoln-Browning relationship was far older and stronger - dating back nearly three decades to a period when both served in the State Legislature and Mr. Lincoln got to know Browning and his wife. In contrast, Trumbull's wife, Julia, was persona non grata with Mrs. Lincoln after having once been one of her closest friends.

Julia Jayne had been a co-conspirator in getting Mary and Mr. Lincoln back together in 1841. Julia also participated in writing one of the Lost Townships letters that led to Mr. Lincoln's near-duel with James Shields. Julia was a bridesmaid for the Lincoln wedding in 1842. But Mrs. Lincoln broke with her after Trumbull upset Mr. Lincoln for the Senate in 1855. William Lee Miller noted: "A year later, according to Mrs. Trumbull, when the two almost met outside church, Julia came over to speak to her old friend Mary, but 'she turned her head the other way and pretended not to see me."23 The cold war between Mary Lincoln and Julia Trumbull got even icier in Washington. The "struggle over appointments during the early weeks of the Lincoln administration seems to have completed the break in the friendship between Julia Trumbull and Mary Lincoln. Each wife only saw her husband's side of the imbroglio."24

Trumbull increasingly lined up with Radical Senators who thought they knew better than the President how to run the war. On October, 1861, Trumbull along with Ohio's Benjamin Wade and Michigan Zachariah Chandler pressured President Lincoln to dismiss General Winfield Scott and place George B. McClellan in overall charge of the Army. Trumbull biographer Roske wrote: "Perhaps the awareness that he preceded Lincoln as a national figure prevented Trumbull from ever deferring to his fellow Illinoisan. Besides, Trumbull never appreciated Lincoln's ability to play the President's role by ear; to Trumbull, such flexibility smacked of the chameleon on plaid. More perceptive than many of his Republican fellows, Trumbull realized that Lincoln had the faculty of compelling almost every man within his reach to be his tool, the more cunning the man, the sharper the tool. Instead of as a figurehead, Lincoln emerged a fountainhead of power."25

Comparing Trumbull to Senator Andrew Johnson in 1862, presidential aide John Hay wrote: "There is no question that John P. Hale and Lyman Trumbull far more nearly sympathize with the President on all questions of National concern than John can; yet they are always captiously criticizing or factiously opposing his movements and his plans, while Johnson supports him as earnestly as he ever opposed him."26 In December 1862, relations between Republicans in the Senate and the President reached a crisis stage in the dark days after the Battle of Fredericksburg. "Pressed and badgered on all sides, Trumbull concluded that some action had to be taken," wrote biographer Krug. "On Tuesday, December 16, he demanded at a caucus of Republican senators that the Senate take decisive action to save the nation from a disastrous defeat. The caucus passed a resolution demanding changes in the Cabinet and sent a delegation to the White House composed of seven senators."27 In the ensuing series of meeting, an embattled President fended off the Senators demand that his reorganize his cabinet, exposed a double game by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and reasserted his preeminence over his Cabinet as well as Congress.

In the Senate, Trumbull went his own independent way - very independent of his fellow Illinoisan in the White House. He was a member of the Committee on the Conduct of the War - which regularly aggravated the President. He gained a reputation as more advanced on slavery issues than the President because Trumbull pushed for stronger Confiscation Acts than Mr. Lincoln wanted. "Trumbull has rather surprisingly been made into something of a hero by Lincoln's critics in an effort to counter the argument that Lincoln's positions were necessitated by his role as a political leader in that state," wrote William Lee Miller. "But the elevation of Trumbull over Lincoln with regard to racial attitudes surely is bizarre. Trumbull, the ex-Democrat, certainly made statements and took positions on race that were far worse that Lincoln's."28

Trumbull also had trouble attracting allies. Trumbull got into a Senate floor fight over a confiscation bill in 1862 with Senators David Clark and James Dixon. Ralph Roske wrote: "Defending the controversial proposal that blacks should be used as Union soldiers, Trumbull cried, 'Sir, no traitor shall come and murder my child or my brother or any soldier of my State or my country,...with my consent. If there is a negro or anybody else in God's world that has got an arm to strike him down, I will say 'strike.' Trumbull went on to attack moderates who opposed confiscation as unconstitutional, but would accept the notion that the President's war powers allowed him to appoint military governors for the South. Dixon then declaimed, 'The Senator from Illinois has, at last unmasked himself as an opponent of this Administration.' Hotly, Trumbull retorted that he was not a 'sy[n]chop[h]ant' to praise every presidential move, but that he felt Lincoln fully realized his own fallibility. Trumbull added, 'He [Lincoln] is a believer in the intelligence of the people, and knowing his own fallibility, is not above listening to their voice.'" According to Roske, "Several of Trumbull's friends became disturbed that he had allowing himself to utter anti-Lincoln statements." They engaged in a parliamentary move that would allow Trumbull to back away from the direction of his criticism of the President. "After an awkward silence, Trumbull uttered a final word, deploring that Lincoln's name had ever entered the debate. Trumbull had feared that the anti-Lincoln label fastened upon him by Dixon would seriously undercut his position within the Illinois Republican party."29

Trumbull reluctantly supported Mr. Lincoln's reelection in 1864 - spending more time denouncing the Democrats than in praising the policies of President Lincoln. In early 1864, Trumbull wrote a friend: "The feeling for Mr. Lincoln's reelection seems to be general, but much of it I discover is only on the surface. You would be surprised in talking with public men we meet here, to find how few when you come to get at their real sentiments are for Mr. Lincoln's reelection. There is a distrust & fear that he is too undecided & inefficient ever to put down the rebellion."30 A factor encouraging Trumbull's anti-Lincoln hopes was the role his political confidant, Joseph Medill, of the Chicago Tribune, was playing," wrote biographer Ralph Roske. Medill briefly toyed with backing Chase for the Republican nomination.31

Mrs. Lincoln's dislike of Mrs. Trumbull survived her husband's death. After moving to Chicago in 1865, Mrs. Lincoln wrote a Washington friend "I have heard of Mrs Trumbull, calling, on some in the house, she met, my little Taddie, & did not enquire about me. As a matter, of course, I should not have seen her, without I was seeing every one; cold, unsympathizing persons, are unpleasant enough, when we are happy, but when we are otherwise, their presence is terrible. As they dined, with us last winter, in W[ashington] one, would suppose, the world had taught her the civilities of life, to speak kindly, to the boy & ask, after the health of his Mother. Even, little Taddie, remarked, the breach of politeness. My darling husband & myself, fully understood their selfish natures & were discussing them, at City Point."32

Mr. Lincoln was more charitable. Robert T. Lincoln once asked his father about his differences with Trumbull - shortly after Trumbull left his father's White House office. "We agree perfectly, but we see things from a different point of view. I am in the White House looking down the [Pennsylvania] Avenue, and Trumbull's in the Senate looking up."33

 

Footnotes

  1. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincolnís Time, p. 190-191.
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Second Supplement, p. 9-11 (Letter to Jesse Olds Norton, February 16, 1855).
  3. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndonís Informants, p. 537 (Letter from Samuel C. Parks to William H. Herndon, 1866).
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 395 (Letter to Charles D. Gilfillan, May 9, 1857).
  5. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 62.
  6. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndonís Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 321.
  7. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 48.
  8. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 50-51.
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 355 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, February 3, 1859).
  10. Roy P. Basler,, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 505 (Letter to Norman B. Judd, December 9, 1859).
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 95 (Letter to William Fithian, August 15, 1860).
  12. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 152.
  13. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 152.
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 512-513 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, December 25, 1859).
  15. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 56.
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 71 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, June 5, 1860).
  17. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 357-358 (Letter from Lyman Trumbull to Abraham Lincoln, December 27, 1860).
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 171 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, January 7. 1861).
  19. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 68.
  20. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, p. 541.
  21. Mark A. Krug, Lyman Trumbull: Conservative Radical, p. 170-171.
  22. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 16.
  23. William Lee Miller, Lincolnís Virtues, p. 312.
  24. William Lee Miller, Lincolnís Virtues, p. 312.
  25. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 78.
  26. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincolnís Journalist: John Hayís Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 202 (January 22, 1862).
  27. Mark M. Krug, Lyman Trumbull: Conservative Radical, p. 214.
  28. William Lee Miller, Lincolnís Virtues, p. 362-363.
  29. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 86-87.
  30. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals, (Letter from Lyman Trumbull to H.G. Pike, February 6, 1864).
  31. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 112.
  32. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 258 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Elizabeth Blair Lee, July 11, 1865).
  33. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 114 (Chicago Record, June 26, 1896).